Sarah Kendzior’s “They Knew: How a Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Compliant” is a book ostensibly about conspiracy theories. It does touch on a number of them, almost exclusively related to high-level political corruption and the infiltration of the government by criminals and criminal networks, subjects that Kendzior has written about extensively. However, it does so mostly superficially. Coming to Kendzior’s catalog by way of “They Knew” felt like reading the final book of a trilogy, in that it spends a lot of time reflecting on events that have already occurred without really rehashing them.
Instead of unraveling any specific conspiracy, Kendzior is concerned here with what a conspiracy is, conceptually. To that end, she is careful to distinguish between an actual conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. The first is an organized and ongoing plot. The other is, in her eyes, a sort of populist epistemology. Whether that epistemology is used to uncover or hide the truth is where things get interesting.
That real conspiracies exist is something Kendzior is absolutely certain of. The big one, called the “Octopus,” involves a globe-spanning, mafia-led world order. This order is aided, abetted and populated by American right-wingers, Israeli crime lords, ex-Soviet oligarchs and, of course, the late Jeffrey Epstein. (Wouldn’t be a book about conspiracies without him, right? But don’t worry, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully also make an appearance.)
Kendzior is, as you might expect from an author who has dedicated her career to this stuff, a bit out there. The book is packed with literary flourishes — “we are living among accelerationists and I want to outrun them” was one of my favorites — as well as wonderfully evocative asides and sweeping metaphors. She wants to believe, and she does so in ardent, urgent prose.
Does this avidity discredit her? Is she any less out there than the QAnon kooks she’s writing about? The question of credibility just so happens to be one of the topics she explicitly addresses.
Writing people off as “conspiracy theorists” is exactly what people would do if they were trying to obscure a vast conspiracy, she says. The term, in its pejorative use, is one of the many narrative manipulation tactics that enable actual conspirators to hide their crimes.
“‘Conspiracy theorist’ is a way to call an investigative reporter a liar and a liar an investigative reporter,” Kendzior writes. “The goal of criminal elites and autocrats is to make the pursuit of truth and justice seem worthless, or a matter pursued by the unhinged.”
At the end of the day, her explanation — which might otherwise be called a conspiracy theory — of who is actually ruining the country and the world lines up with a lot of established facts. Roy Cohn was Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s protégé. President Donald Trump was, much later, Cohn’s. Many of the same sketchy Republican operatives who made it into the Trump administration were ideological descendants of McCarthy’s rabid anti-communist movement. Many of the major figures in law enforcement who failed to investigate Trump’s many crimes were also associated with that movement. And that movement was undoubtedly mixed up with the mob at various points. Cohn was heavily involved with shady figures in international organized crime, like Meyer Lansky. Trump, like his mentor Cohn, is notoriously well-connected with mafia figures.
As someone with Sicilian heritage, I bristled when Kendzior started in on the whole “the mob secretly runs the world” thing. However, I kept reading. She later explains that, in reality, the Cosa Nostra was a fiction created to convince J. Edgar Hoover to even bother investigating organized crime. He was suspiciously uninterested despite the American public clamoring for it in the ’50s, when Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee launched what became known as the Kefauver Committee to uncover the influence of organized crime in the U.S. In Kendzior’s estimation, limiting the public’s conception of the mafia to only Italians, still a relatively racialized and othered group at that time, was a way to obscure larger, more dangerous groups, like Lansky’s National Crime Syndicate. Lansky, she notes, largely escaped examination by the Kefauver Committee. When he was eventually tried for tax evasion in 1973, he was almost immediately acquitted, despite his illegal activities being pretty much public knowledge.
Does Lansky’s legacy live on in the creation of a vast and enduring international kleptocracy? It’s an open question, but it sure feels like a good fit if you’re looking to explain why everything sucks in the particular way it does. Something being both possible and plausible does not make it proven, of course, but Kendzior makes a good case for continuing to investigate. Occam’s razor, she argues, isn’t as sharp as we’ve been led to believe. History has shown us that some of the most complicated, sinister explanations of events have been the right ones.
While “They Knew” deals in lofty, “transnational” conspiracies, the question of whether there is something sinister at play is one that is inherent to all investigative journalism. It’s one I’ve found myself asking a lot in my work surveying this city’s homelessness crisis. That there is something seriously wrong here is not in dispute. Our city spends massive and ever-increasing amounts of money on a never-decreasing homelessness population. Since 1990, Seattle politicians have proposed seven plans to permanently end homelessness, and yet all they’ve done is oversee the problem’s expansion.
In my opinion, it’s only natural to want to know if there is a reason the massive amount of money being spent doesn’t make a dent. Where is it going? My fear is that it’s right into the homelessness industrial complex, a concept that right-wing actors have appropriated and weaponized. One of the key tactics of manipulation that Kendzior describes — besides the ad hominem use of the “conspiracy theorist” label that conspirators so love to apply to their critics — is something she calls “preemptive narrative inversion.”
Preemptive narrative inversion is, she writes, “an early propaganda intervention in which outside parties interested in an actual crime are redirected towards a fictitious crime that exonerates the actual criminals and, ideally, implicates their opponents at the same time.” A red herring, basically, but one served up in service of those in power. Right-wing pundits don’t want our government to actually start housing and helping homeless people: They want to criminalize our homeless neighbors into oblivion. The fact that this is already occurring on a massive scale is why our very expensive response to the issue seems so lifeless — sweeps combined with a subpar shelter system and unchecked spending on cops, courts and prosecutors are what’s actually exacerbating the homelessness crisis.
Such obfuscations are even easier to invoke in the internet age, Kendzior notes. Most thoroughly reported and fact-based journalism is hidden behind paywalls, while blatant falsehoods and bits of pure propaganda circulate freely. Information overload has flattened the landscape to the point that everything is indistinguishable. Actual conspiracies and insipid, obfuscationary conspiracy theories are impossible to tell apart.
As Kendzior warns, our grasp on the truth is already tenuous, and powerful forces are working to pull it all the way out of our hands. However, she also writes that we should not be discouraged. We should keep questioning powerful people. Even if the worst people we know are also asking, typically with the intention of further confusing the issue, there needs to be someone asking uncomfortable questions for the right reasons.
I finished Kendzior’s book inspired by her admonishment to keep digging and to “trust your eyes and ears, not only because official sources are often dishonest but because they are your eyes and ears, and the conspirators want to devalue that, to flatten individual perception into something formless and malleable.”
The thing is, I have never been scared to keep asking those uncomfortable questions. I would very much like to know why our money is effectively wasted and who benefits from it. I am not terribly worried about my career, as independent journalism is neither lucrative nor prestigious, and I knew that going into it. What I am scared of is a big, overarching question that doesn’t seem to plague Kendzior at all: What if all the bad stuff that’s happening isn’t anyone’s fault? What if we built ourselves an irreparably broken system and are now suffering too much under it to go back and fix it?
Kendzior points out that we cling to conspiracy theories because we need there to be an explanation for evil. If the inequity and injustice in our world is no one’s fault, if those are just naturally occurring phenomena — just the way things are — well, that’s incredibly bleak.
That being said, I didn’t mean for my last article at Real Change to be this much of a downer. I imagined it to be more focused on my incredible colleagues and the even more incredible people who sell this paper. But after observing our dysfunctional homelessness response close up for over a year and a half, I am increasingly afraid that its dysfunction is not by design.
It would be deeply comforting to believe that people like Mayor Bruce Harrell and former King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones didn’t and don’t want to do the right thing. That they are cynical careerists. That second thing may be true, but, unfortunately, it does not invalidate the first thing. Most elected officials, nonprofit leaders and high-ranking government staffers I’ve met on this beat genuinely want to do the right thing. It’s just that when they set out to do it, it comes out wrong.
As “They Knew” makes clear, conspiracy requires intent, and unfortunately intent is not the issue when it comes to caring for our most vulnerable neighbors.
We have paved ourselves a road entirely of good intentions. We know where those types of roads end and, judging from the state of the city, we’re almost there.
Read more of the Oct. 18-24, 2023 issue.